By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Cutting gardens are an odd duck these days, but there was a time when people routinely set aside a part of the yard to raise flowers for the vase.
A well-planned and -tended cutting garden could provide months of floral treats, from the pussy willows and daffodils of March to the dahlias and salvias of September. Perhaps the renewed interest in vegetable gardening will lead to a revival in cutting gardens, which need the same sort of terrain (flat and sunny) and methodical attention.
But what would happen if an entire landscape was devoted to the vase? The result would be something like Bob Wollam's 11-acre spread on the rural fringes of Northern Virginia. Seven of the acres are given to raising cut flowers for local markets and florists.
A thick row of zinnias extends for hundreds of feet in a rainbow, much like the sequential color schemes of Gertrude Jekyll, the mother of the English flower garden. An acre or so of the panicled hydrangea covers a hillside in domed mopheads, now aging to a sublime rose color. I have never seen such a massing of the shrub. Elsewhere, sunflowers are in a sloping field in various stages of maturity, some still young so late in the year.
Here at Wollam Gardens, on the outskirts of Jeffersonton, in Culpeper County, all the ways we segregate plants go out the window. Annuals, shrubs and tropicals grow cheek by jowl for their flowers, stems, leaves and buds. This melange in the field becomes a harmonious medley in the vase, a transforming alchemy that has played to the human psyche for centuries. Dutch Masters painted impossibly eclectic floral arrangements, familiar to anyone who has walked the galleries of a great art museum or slept in a chain hotel. The framed prints, if we note them, speak to the bounty of the garden and the joy of being one's own florist.
For Wollam, a former marketing executive with Exxon Mobil, the enterprise has grown steadily over the past 18 years. He has two farm managers and half a dozen part-time helpers. He said that in spite of the recession he has seen sales grow by about 10 percent this year. He and his staff sell at eight area farmers markets and deliver to 14 florists. They offer packages for weddings and parties, and plans are in the works to expand further.
To those who think all flowers these days come from Colombia or through the Dutch flower markets, Wollam has news.
"It's certainly a terrific time for local flower growers. Our time has come. We have finally been able to break the noose of the importers," he says.
Some of Wollam's flowers are difficult or require a greenhouse. These include the lovely roselike lisianthus, the pastel-hued Icelandic poppies and the fragrant trusses of sweet pea. But other plants are within reach of the home grower: The decorative and waterlily forms of the dahlia, easy to grow with a little devotion, look fabulous when harvested.
I'm looking at a white plastic bucket full of Wollam's newly harvested dahlias, all varieties of a series called Karma, bred for their cutting qualities, with long stems and a long vase life. Karma Maarten Zwaan is a newer member of the lot, with creamy white petals unfurling from a faintly yellow center. Karma Thalia is a rich magenta that "goes with so much," says Wollam. Karma Naomi is a deep crimson with dark leaves. Karma Choc is an even darker red. The variety Karma Sangria is a cactus form, pink salmon with a yellow center, but Wollam has found it doesn't grow as tall as the others, a prerequisite for cutting. Of them all, his customers favor the white Maarten Zwaan. "The demand for that has been incredible," he says.
Zinnias are the classic cutting annual. "We only grow those that are powdery-mildew-resistant, with large flowers and great colors," he says. That includes Uproar Rose, a double-flowered magenta zinnia, and Benary's Giant Lime, which is a pale green. After years of being trendy, this color has yet to fall from grace.
Both zinnias and dahlias love to be cut. This forces new flower stems to form for cutting a few weeks later. In both plants, Wollam says, it's important to take long stems initially or the stems that regrow won't be long enough for cutting.
On the threshold of autumn, the cut flower farm is full of the lushness of the late season. But it is an inherently dynamic garden, where the flowering crops change dramatically month to month. In April and May, it is an entirely different landscape. The fields and greenhouses are awash in ranunculus, sweet peas and poppies. Tulips are a big crop. Wollam sticks to late-season varieties, the so-called French tulips: tall, thick-stemmed beauties such as Maureen, a creamy white, and Big Smile, a cheerful golden yellow. Among the frilled parrot tulips, he likes Apricot Parrot, which is apricot flushed pink and very much of the season. He also grows lily-flowered tulips.
By mid-May he is harvesting two herbaceous peonies that he raves about, Red Charm and Cytherea. They take three or four years to bloom heavily.
Sunflowers are an important crop for Wollam, who plants them, along with oriental lilies, every two weeks for a continuous crop. Sunflower varieties have been developed for cutting, proceeding from seed to flower in a short 60 days. The Pro Cut series features at least six varieties of different hues.
All these herbaceous flowers are pretty obvious candidates for the vase, but shrubs, too, provide months of blooms. Wollam stops by a ditch (the ditches are used to grow wet-loving shrubs and perennials such as willows, ilex and mints) and cuts a long whip of a branch. It's a pussy willow named Salix chaenomeloides, and once he strips the leaves, I see plump red buds that will erupt as silver gray catkins in March. When the weather turns cold the stems will redden, too. Once sold as a forced late-winter stem, its red bud scales alone make it a candidate for holiday decorations, for which half of his crop is now taken.
In early April, a viburnum called the European snowbush is harvested for its little green-white mopheads. Around the same time, Wollam cuts the larger mopheads of the Chinese snowball viburnum, Viburnum macrocephalum Sterile, and customers think they have some early-season hydrangeas. In fact, those start in midsummer with the Annabelle and other smooth hydrangeas, which age from white to green to tan.
In August, the panicled hydrangeas begin, and they are still being cut now as rose-colored mopheads. Wollam favors the variety Limelight for its large, upright lime-white blossoms, aging to rose-pink. After cutting, he says, put the stem in two inches of warm water and wait for all the water to be taken up. It will then stay a fresh pink color for at least two months, he says.
Wollam, 69, knows a few other tricks of the trade. If the golden yellow petals radiating from the dark center of a sunflower are blemished or missing, he plucks them all out to reveal an encircling ring of small green buttons, decorative in a different way. A poinsettia relative named euphorbia will wilt uselessly if simply cut in the heat of the day, but a stem harvested in early morning or evening, and then placed in a pail of hot water for three hours and kept in the shade, will remain turgid. Wollam goes one further than the shade treatment, conditioning his freshly cut stems in a large refrigerated shed kept at 38 degrees.
The annuals are grown through six-inch netting. It's an ingenious system of staking. Two metal fence stakes -- they're called T-posts -- are placed at each end of a row. The netting is affixed to a wooden bar placed on the far side of each pair of stakes, keeping the netting taut. As the flowers grow, the bars on each end, and the netting with them, can be raised to keep pace with the plants.
Wollam took early retirement from the oil company in part because of the frustration of dealing with its layers of bureaucracy. In his early 50s, he embarked on a whole new life. "I said, I'm going to do something with plants," he says.
Visitors to Wollam Gardens can tour the seven acres under cultivation and buy cut flowers. The farm is at 5167 Jeffersonton Rd., Jeffersonton, Va., and can be reached at 540-937-3222. Directions are available at http://www.wollamgardens.com.